Lessons Learned: Battle of Hattin 2017

I have been making and using reproductions of medieval for several years. This involves a continual process of iteration, failure, and improvement. One event I participated in which included several learning opportunities was The Battle of Hattin reenactment in 2017, hosted by Regnum Hierosolymitanum in Israel. This event took place on the location where the Army of Jerusalem mustered, the road it marched upon, and the site of the battle on the closest weekend to the 830th anniversary of the battle.

The event took place over three days in the height of the Israeli summer, 30June-02July. The daily high temperature was approximately 46°C (115°F) in the shade, and the distance covered was approximately 35km (22mi) over two the three days. The first day was simply for mustering, the second for marching and a skirmish, and the third for the final march and the battle at the Horns of Hattin.

Первый день.png
The first day of marching.
Второй день.png
The second day of marching.

The first challenge I had to address was appropriate footwear for a hike over rugged terrain while carrying a load. I have been making my own footwear for reenactment purposes for several years. I decided it would be interesting to try to gauge the level of wear this sort of trek puts on them by beginning with a brand new pair. I didn’t know exactly what the terrain was going to be like before leaving, but the organizers emphasized the necessity for pattens. Pattens are a sort of sandal made of wood or stacked leather which are worn over the shoe. They add significant rigidity to the bottom of the shoes and are much easier to repair than the shoe. The problem with pattens for my specific context is that evidence of their use in the 12th century that I have been able to find is limited to a single toe strap found in London. The number of finds increases through the thirteenth century, and the largest groupings of pattens is assigned to the second half of the 14th century.(Grew p91-93) This increase in finds coincides with the development of road infrastructure, and pattens begin to decline as multi-soled shoes become popular.(Goubitz p253)

The justification from the event organizers for the use of pattens by the field armies of the 12th century was the existence of iron calks excavated at local sites These were essentially small iron cleats which would be affixed to the bottom of footwear at the heel, preventing excessive wear while minimally impacting traction. These were said to be in an unpublished archaeological report. The type of pattens recommended by the event coordinators was made of stacked leather, essentially multiple soles which were stitched together at the edges with a toe and heel strap. Being new to the event, I complied with their recommendations, and made the pattens pictured below.

Since the 2017 event, Regnum Hierosolymitanum has changed their position on the use of stacked leather pattens being used in a late 12th century Outremer context. The earliest extant pattens in this style I have been able to find date to the 14th century.(Grew p100)

No photo description available.

During the hike, I ran into a number of problems with my pattens. On the second day, I found them to be excessively loose, collecting dirt, rocks, and sand between the sole of my shoe and the patten. I determined both the toe strap and the ankle strap needed to be tightened. During a skirmish with the Ayyubid forces, one of the pattens came off my toe and dangled behind my foot by the ankle strap, exasperating the problem. I made an impromptu repair, lashing the patten to my foot with a braided piece of palm fiber, but when we stopped for the evening I had a chance to properly repair them.

There were two changes I needed to make. First, I decided to make the toe strap adjustable. I cut the toe straps in half and pierced a series of holes in the leather, through which I passed braided palm fibers and secured with knots. The more severe issue was the fit of the ankle strap. The problem was that the part of the strap passing around the back of my heel was too high. It is necessary for this strap to fit over the lower part of the Achilles tendon where it can ride on the widest part of your heel, rather like a belt at the waist. Between legs of the march, I completed both of these repairs. The following day I both marched and fought while wearing my pattens and had no further issues.

When the march was over I took the photograph to the left. The pattens had sustained some significant wear over the three days of marching over hard packed dirt and sharp volcanic rocks. The stitches at the rear of the patten had worn away completely, making the layers partially separate, and about half of the first layer of leather had been worn through. Calks would prevent this wear, but I have not personally seen any evidence of their use in a context acceptably close to mine. Three years later, these pattens are still in working condition. I have replaced the braided palm cord with hemp, replaced the leather thongs at the instep, reinforced the holes in the ankle strap, and replaced the tread sole, but all of these repairs are very simple in comparison with maintenance on the actual shoes.

The boots I wore came over the ankle and secured with a single lace which wound up the leg in four loops. I had always assumed this to simply be a matter of fashion, but I stumbled onto a possible functional reason for this system. During the march, I observed multiple people who wore low shoes stopping to pick stones out of their shoes. They complained of the problem frequently, but I never experienced so much as sand inside of my boots. When I took the boots off for the day, I found that the top edge of my boots had acted as a funnel, capturing many stones and pieces of sand, but no outside debris fell past the second loop of the leather lace.

No photo description available.

In the future, I plan on making a pair of wooden pattens in the earliest style I can find. Single soled turnshoes are not designed for walking on asphalt or gravel, surfaces that are often found at event sites. I feel that it is better to wear something may have been unusual in my period than it would be to modify them in a way that we do not have evidence for at all.

The second issue I faced during the Battle of Hattin was heat. The military forces on the march were required to wear their armor, expecting to be attacked at any time. My armor consisted of a gambeson made of thirty-five layers of linen and a steel helmet. The principle problems I needed to address was wicking moisture and protecting myself from the sun. I tried out a theory with my woolen tunic. The first day I wore a wool layer between my gambeson and undertunic to determine if there was any benefit of moisture wicking, and the second I wore only my linen undertunic. It was very hot. I honestly wasn’t able to tell any difference between wearing the wool or not.

In order to protect my face and neck, I wore a wide brimmed hat. The only issue I had with it was under high winds, something easily fixed by adding a braided palm chinstrap. Covering the skin in a climate like this is very important, and if you do not drink enough water it can be very dangerous. We had numerous people bow out of the trek, get treated by the embedded medic, or go to the hospital for heat related injuries and severe sunburns, but I didn’t experience any serious issues. During the march I drank approximately a liter of water per hour, something that would not have been easy to sustain in the twelfth century without an extensive system of logistics.

I don’t think that there is anything else I could do to mitigate heat. My new gambeson is lighter in color and has long sleeves, so I am curious what difference there will be in that climate. I have found primary literary sources describing Byzantine troops wearing gambesons with slit armpits that can be worn behind the back, but I am wary applying this to Frankish forces.(De velitatione bellica, Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, ca. 975)

The final main issue I faced during the 2017 Hattin event was water. There were three water carrying systems that I could justify with primary sources for this trek. A gourd, a ceramic bottle, and a leather flask or costrel. I began the event with all three. The ceramic and leather were not constructed specifically for my context, but were off the shelf items.

Image may contain: 4 people
1130, Italy, Barb.lat.2724, Chronicon Vulturnense. Written at the San Vincenzo al Volturno monastery by a monk called Johannes.
6th-10th c, National Museum of Ireland

The leather costrel ran into a couple problems. It was constructed with superior craftsmanship, but when it was impregnated with waterproof materials, the leather became very dark. This exasperated the issue of the lining softening and sticking to the stopper. When the costrel was full of water, it kept the lining somewhat cool, but when it was empty the lining did not stand up very well. The vendor sold the costrel as being lined with brewer’s pitch. Since the event, I have bought brewer’s pitch for myself, and it stays hard up to nearly boiling temperatures, so there was some flaw in effect there. In any case, I do not think it is ideal for the water to be keeping a bottle cool instead of the other way around. My costrel met its end on the second day of the event when the horse carrying our water barrels stepped on it.

I also carried a ceramic jug on campaign. It performed well, keeping the water inside relatively cool because of its light exterior, it did not change shape or consistency, it did not impart any flavor to the water, an almost ideal system until it was smashed. It is possible that a ceramic bottle could be covered by a sort of basket, but even so this would be a danger of relying on pottery.

Moldmade ceramic flasks, 13th century Syria, Damascus, Acre. (Avissar p169)

The final system I used to carry water was a gourd. There are occasional pictorial references to pilgrims carrying water gourds in my period, and it is my favorite option. The light exterior absorbs little heat and the pithy walls of the gourd act as insulation. A dried gourd is lightweight and strong, usually lasting me two or three years before breaking. To illustrate this, I have given one to a puppy to use as a toy and thirty minutes of chewing did little damage to it. After cleaning a gourd must be lined with some waterproof material. I most often use beeswax, but brewer’s pitch could also be used. If the gourd is not lined, the effect will be similar to making tea, but with the entirely unpalatable flavor of gourd husk. (Edit: I have since heard that an un-lined gourd can be filled with water, soaked, and dried many times to extract this flavor from the bottle.)

A ghirbe being used.

In the future, I intend to make a leather flask myself made with true brewer’s pitch. Even with this change, I feel like this option is best used in more temperate zones. In Israel, I would carry multiple gourds and perhaps a fourth possibility; a traditional goat skin bag called a “ghirbe” was used for carrying water by Bedouin tribes. Unfortunately, I have not been able to trace this back to times of Franish occupation yet. Similar bags are traditional in other arid regions of the world, such as the South Asian “mashk”, the Basque “zahato”, and Spanish “bota”. Water skins are known from depictions by the Assyrians as early as 3000BC. I have not begun research in earnest, but this seems like a promising option.

Zillis church painted ceiling (present day Switzerland),1110-1140

A further option is to use a coopered bottle or canteen. So far I have only seen a single pictorial example of this type of water carrying system but it certainly would have be very durable. I expect the downsides of this type would be greater expense than pottery or a gourd, but I do not have any hard figures to support that idea.

I intend to return to the annual Battle of Hattin reenactment. It stands out as the most authentic reenactment that I have been to. There is simply no competing with a group of people passionate enough to their hobby to brave the Israeli summer and march across rock covered hills to fight a battle. The next time I go, I intend on showing up a bit more prepared.

If The Battle of Hattin sounds like a good time to you, let me know! It happens every year and I would love to see more people at this fantastic event.

Learn more at: https://www.horns-hattin.com/

Bibliography

Avissar, M., & Stern, E. J. (2005). Pottery of the Crusader, Ayyubid, and Mamluk periods in Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority.

Grew, F., & Neergaard, M. D. (2006). Shoes and pattens. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Goubitz, O., Driel-Murray, C. V., & Waateringe, W. G. (2001). Stepping through time: Archaeological footwear from prehistoric times until 1800. Zwolle: Stichting Promotie Archeologie.

NTLS. (2011, October 08). Ghirbe, zimzimiya and plastic. Retrieved June 21, 2020, from http://discoversinai.net/english/ghirbe-zimzimiya-and-plastic/4560

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